Women experience headaches twice as often as men, studies show

Headaches have become such an issue that when Dr. Gayatri Devi appeared on TODAY, she called them the “underground epidemic.” The ‘underground’ makes sense because when someone says they have a headache, it’s almost always written off by those around them. People who do not suffer from headaches generally think a couple of Tylenols will take care of everything. However, the medical community is focusing on headache disorders and, fortunately, that’s translating to more people listening. Headache disorders are when headaches either reoccur or incapacitate the person enough to affect their functionality. Recent studies suggest over half the worlds’ population suffers from headache disorders. And, in yet another contest we didn’t want to win, women are twice as likely than men to succumb to headache disorders.

Headaches are a real pain — and headache disorders are surprisingly widespread. In fact, a new study published today in The Journal of Headache and Pain suggests headaches are a common condition that affects people around the globe.

Looking at data from 357 previous studies that measured the prevalence of headache disorders, the researchers found that more than half of the world’s population (52%) has one of these conditions, which include migraine and tension-type headaches. Plus, the researchers estimate that nearly 16% of people in the world have a headache on any given day.

“Headaches are, in my opinion, an underground epidemic,” Dr. Gayatri Devi, professor of neurology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra Northwell, told TODAY.

And it’s an epidemic that disproportionately affects women. In particular, the new study found that roughly twice as many women experience migraine and frequent headaches (15 or more headache days per month) as men. But, as frustrating and debilitating as headache disorders can be, there are ways to manage the symptoms.

There are a few reasons headache disorders are more common among women than men, Devi said. First, hormonal changes play a huge role in headaches and migraine attacks. Some people experience migraine regularly around the time of their period.

“Boys before puberty have a higher incidence of migraines than girls,” Natbony explained. But after puberty, the incidence of migraine among girls increases. “After menopause, once estrogen levels drop, you have stable hormones, and the prevalence actually decreases,” she said.

Second, women may have different posture issues that contribute to neck and shoulder tension, Devi said. “Your hip bone is connected to your knee bone (and) ankle bone. So, basically, all that gets transferred to your head,” she explained. “It causes pain in your neck, which causes tension-type headaches, which can also trigger migraine.”

Sleep deprivation and stress can contribute to more frequent headaches, Devi said. Women are more likely to suffer from either than men.

[From Today]

Those GD hormones, man. What did we ever do to them to make them want to punish us so much? But yes, anytime my body is out of whack and any change I’ve ever gone through – puberty, babies, menopause – it was accompanied with a major headache episode. Not to mention the cyclical migraines that came during the non-change years. The posture reason Dr. Devi cited was interesting. It makes sense. I stand well, but I sit poorly, especially at my desk and have to remind myself to put my shoulder down and straighten my spine. I’ve also paid more attention to how I read a book, because I’m usually in a pretzel shape for an extended period. When Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie asked why women get more headaches, Dr. Devi joked, “men.” But I think it was only a half joke because as I mentioned above about being dismissed, I’ve only ever had women employers empathize with my migraines. I’m lucky that the men in my family have always been sympathetic, but I know women with male relatives that tell them they complain too much when they have a headache.

Dr. Devi emphasized that you should talk to your doctor if headaches become a problem. I second this. She also suggested the following tips for management:

• Keep track of your headaches to identify potential triggers. Your triggers could include things like sleep issues, hormonal changes, weather or atmospheric pressure changes, dehydration, skipping meals, neck and shoulder tension, caffeine, alcohol or stress.

• Do your best to stay comfortable while dealing with a headache. For instance, it often helps to keep loud noises and bright lights to a minimum while dealing with a migraine headache.

• Talk to your doctor about medications that may help — ideally before things get severe, Natbony advised. Some treatments, like Botox injections or wearable devices, can be used to help prevent migraine headaches. Or your doctor might suggest you take abortive medications, which you can use at the first sign a migraine is occurring to stop it in its tracks.

• Certain lifestyle modifications, like partaking in regular physical activity and incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, may help reduce migraine attacks.

Another thing Dr. Devi warned about that I was unfamiliar with was a Thunderclap headache. A thunderclap headache is “a severe headache that starts suddenly.” It doesn’t gradually build but rather hits you and frequently people say it’s the worst headache of their life. Call your doctor or go to the ER because they can be a sign of a stroke. Not always, but since there’s a chance, you should always let someone know ASAP.

Photo credit: Credit: Alex Green, Anna Tarazevich and Marcus Aurelius on Pexels

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12 Responses to “Women experience headaches twice as often as men, studies show”

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  1. Sapphire.Topaz says:

    Let’s talk about the load women carry on the daily, all the things ee have to keep track of that men dont. That adds SO MUCH to the stress load. And how we are constantly invalidated by our partners, bosses….it adds to the fury, which increases stress…..

  2. FancyPants says:

    This is my personal biggest fear about the GOP trying to outlaw birth control- I need the continuous oral dose (don’t take the blank pills) to keep my PMS migraines somewhat manageable. If one of those gets a chance to get going, it takes 2-3 days to get over it. But they don’t care about the multiple aspects of birth control, all they pretend to see is babies murdered in the womb.

  3. SarahCS says:

    I have a sadly familiar relationship with headaches and migraines. Fortunately I now only have 3-4 migraines a year but headaches are a regular occurrence and can last for 2-3 days, it’s hideous. My boyfriend on the other hand, pretty much never.

    I know the things that help reduce them (sleep, exercise, trying to manage stress) but my big problem is that when one hits I forget ALL the things I have to help manage it (chamomile & mint tea, cold rollers, other rollers, lovely balm to rub on your temples, various drugs), it’s like the solution part of my brain shuts down and I end up just lying there waiting it out. I know my limit of what I can push through (and usually pay the price later) and when I just have to shut down.

  4. Melly says:

    I suffered from sinus headaches, triggered by changes in air pressure, most of my life. I learned to work thru the pain. But they started growing stronger & I kept pushing through. Cause that’s what we do. It was only after my father died in early 2020, that the weight of grief and headaches became too much. I went to a neurologist who told me I’ve been having migraines. Just getting it diagnosed was a relief. (My pcp had been blowing me off for years). Now I’ve been battling my insurance co for the last 2 years to get the medication that works for me. But they don’t want to cover it. I was going thru early menopause at the time of my diagnosis.

  5. LadyMTL says:

    I’ve slowly but surely figured out what my headache triggers are (everything from dry roasted nuts to sucralose to too much screen time or even rainy weather) and I would have loved to have had legit help from doctors instead of trying to do it on my own.

    It is definitely true that people can be dismissive of headache disorders / chronic headaches because they figure just take a Tylenol and you’ll be fine. My head feels like it’s going to crack open but sure, I’ll take the Tylenol thanks for the help lol.

    • Noo says:

      @ladymtl I hear you! I have suffered for so many years and FINALLY got a recommendation to a headache neurologist and I cautiously think it I could be life changing. Re the tylenols before I would take a cocktail of extra strength acetaminophen, ibuprofen and also Tylenol 1s to try to reduce the pain, which is not good for your organs in so many doses and also for me causes rebound cycles where then I get even more headaches. I just got Rx for both Cambia and Suvexx and have had good outcomes with both so far.

  6. OG Bella says:


    (Sorry, traveling with the family and at the end of my rope with freaking with everyone’s apparent helplessness)

  7. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    Lol good luck finding a solution and/or pinpointing so-called triggers. I’m one of those patients who’ve been living with every kind of headache there is since teens. But when menopause started several years ago? The ante was upped a thousandfold. I did finally find a doctor who appeared concerned and actually heard me. I’m now on a Nurtec every other day plan plus some others which work in tandem with each other, and things seem hopeful for the first time in my life lol. I hated it that it took me so long, but most doctors just don’t care to try find something that works if it means changing meds every month until we find something.

  8. manda says:

    I’ve had headaches my entire life and think they are related to tension and occasionally to sinus/allergies. I don’t think that I have migraines because I don’t typically have the symptoms that people associate with migraines, like auras or nausea. Also, I’ve never been diagnosed. But, none of my doctors have really ever cared, except for a doc in high school, who had me do a MRI. I wonder, how does a neurologist diagnose those over regular headaches? Do they give you an EEG? Does it have to be during a headache? Would an MRI show migraines? I’d love to hear people’s experiences

  9. ClaireB says:

    This is why the medical community still doesn’t have a good handle on what causes migraine headaches: because they mostly happen to women. If men had migraines with the frequency women do, they’d have been studying them intensively for a hundred years by now.

    I had chronic migraine daily for years and despite getting medical help, it was me who figured out what was going on (medication side effect). They’ve improved immensely now, but I’m the one who had to do the research and the work. My (female) doctor was next to useless.